This year, I received two queries about the correct Vespers readings for the feast of the prophet Elias (July 20). And before proceeding, I should say that I am really happy that more parishes are celebrating Vespers!
Our epistle book is actually titled The Epistles and Old Testament Readings for the Liturgical Year; it contains all the Scriptures OTHER than the Gospel that are assigned for Vespers and the Divine Liturgy (as well as the Sixth Hour in the Great Fast). Sometimes the entire text is given, and for readings that are less likely to be used, only the Scriptural citation is provided. Here are the Vespers readings for July 20 (chanted on the evening of July 19, of course):
1st Reading: I Kings 17:1-23
2nd Reading: I Kings 18:1, 17-41, 44, 42, 45-46, and 19:1-16
3rd Reading: I Kings 19:19-21 and 2 Kings 2:1, and 6-14
All three readings have to do with the Prophet Elias (or Elijah), whose feast is being celebrated. The first tells the story of the drought that Elias invoked upon Israel in the time of King Ahab; the second reading is about his flight from Ahab and his vision in the desert; and the third concerns his being carried up to heaven in a fiery chariot, leaving behind his disciple Eliseus (or Elisha). Both Elijah and Elisha are mentioned in the hymns for the day.
The questions I received this year had to do with the second of these readings. Father David’s annual typikon gives the following citation:
2nd Reading 18:188.8.131.52.42.45-46; 19:1-16
The periods separate individual verses, but it is clear that the Epistle book says to read verses 17-41 of the 18th chapter of the first book of Kings, and Father David says to read only verses 17 and 41, not what lies in between. Father David is correct; the Epistle Book is in error.
But a more important question arises: why is this reading so complicated? Both the second and third readings leave out portions of the text that the church fathers who compiled our liturgy felt were not essential. But in the second reading, verses are actually reordered quite a bit. Why?
The answer has to do with modern Biblical editions, and the chapter and verse numbers which were introduced long after the liturgical books were created. The Old Testament in particular sometimes has verses which are duplicated or seemingly out of order. Scriptural scholars have sometimes compared many manuscripts of the biblical books and tried to decude when these were simply copying errors, and in these cases, modern editions of the Bible somtimes omit or reorder verses to match our understanding of what the original text said – while for purposes of the Liturgy, which often comments on the Scriptural texts are prayed over by the Church Fathers, we tend to use the Scriptures in the form they knew – the one preserved or adapted in the liturgical books.
At the same time, even modern editions of our liturgical books can make mistakes. A corrected version of the Epistle Book was printed by the Byzantine Seminary Press in 2011, and is already out of print. But if you know of any mistakes in the Epistle Book (or Gospel book) that should be fixed in future editions, I invite you to write to use at email@example.com and we will ensure that they are considered in future printings.